Botching Air Traffic Control Upgrade

March 12, 2018

Our air traffic control (ATC) system is run by the federal government and subject to all the usual bureaucratic failures such as cost overruns, lack of innovation, a stagnant workforce, unstable finances, and ineffective leadership.

The solution to these problems is to privatize the system, as the Canadians have done with their system to great success. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would continue to oversee aviation safety, but ATC operations would be moved into a private, nonprofit, self-funded company.

A recent Washington Post headline was “FAA botched $36 billion effort to modernize air traffic system, report says.” They point to a new report by federal auditors, which is the latest of many similar reports going back decades.

When will Congress finally say “enough” and pursue an overhaul?

Here are highlights from the WaPo:

The Federal Aviation Administration has mishandled a $36 billion project to modernize the antiquated aviation management system, according to a harshly critical inspector general’s report released Thursday.

It was the fourth inspector general’s critique in as many years of a program known as NextGen, on which more than $7 billion in federal funds has already been spent.

… The report said the FAA “has lacked effective management controls” in awarding contracts, sometimes spent money on low-priority projects and allocated an estimated $370 million for projects that were still awaiting approval.

… NextGen has long been a cause of consternation and frustration in Congress and with commercial airlines that are expected to invest billions of dollars in their own cash to complete the system.

NextGen is often described as a GPS-based system, but it is a vastly more complex network of interlocking systems that will change cockpit communications, guide airplanes both aloft and on the ground, and allow airlines to fly directly to their destinations rather than turning after reaching each designated way point.

… Together they will allow planes to safely fly closer to one another, save fuel and time, get immediate weather updates, and communicate more effectively with other airplanes and with air traffic controllers.

… But the cost of equipping each plane to handle the new systems has been estimated at $200,000. Airlines say they need reassurance that if they invest, the NextGen program will be delivered on schedule.

That led House Republicans, later with the support of President Trump, to propose that the NextGen program and more than 30,000 FAA workers be spun off into an independent, nonprofit corporation.

… There have been 13 confirmed or acting heads of the FAA since the precursor of NextGen was proposed as the Advanced Automation System in 1983.

… “FAA does not have today, and has not had since its inception, anything that would approximate a real plan for achieving a lot of the things it has advertised for the NextGen program,” said an FAA employee familiar with the program, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly. “I think the sentiment out there is that NextGen has been a big dud, and it’s hard to disagree with that sentiment if you look at what’s actually been produced.”

More on air traffic control reform here.


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